Pioneer Trails - RPT's Unsung Heroes

Guillaume Robert • February 13, 2020

Now that lunchtime is definitely over on the West Coast, and since WotC was also courteous enough to confirm it in a tweet, it appears that there are no imminent changes coming to Pioneer in the aftermath of two weekends of Regional Players Tour and MagicFest events that saw the rise to prominence of the Dimir Inverter and Lotus Breach archetypes.

3 Jace, Wielder of Mysteries
4 Inverter of Truth
4 Thassa's Oracle
2 Thought Erasure
4 Thoughtseize
2 Censor
4 Dig Through Time
2 Drown in the Loch
4 Fatal Push
1 Hero's Downfall
4 Opt
1 Omen of the Sea
2 Choked Estuary
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Fabled Passage
2 Fetid Pools
1 Ipnu Rivulet
5 Island
2 Swamp
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Watery Grave

1 Hero's Downfall
1 Cry of the Carnarium
2 Damping Sphere
1 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
1 Languish
1 Legion's End
2 Mystical Dispute
1 Negate
3 Pack Rat
1 Witch's Vengeance
Dimir Inverter by Corey Burkhart, Winner of PT Phoenix 2020

4 Arboreal Grazer
4 Fae of Wishes // Granted
2 Satyr Wayfinder
4 Vizier of Tumbling Sands
4 Hidden Strings
4 Pore Over the Pages
4 Strategic Planning
4 Sylvan Scrying
1 Dig Through Time
1 Expansion // Explosion
1 Mystical Dispute
3 Underworld Breach
1 Blast Zone
4 Botanical Sanctum
2 Breeding Pool
1 Forest
4 Lotus Field
1 Sheltered Thicket
4 Temple of Mystery
4 Thespian's Stage
3 Yavimaya Coast

1 Mystical Dispute
1 Underworld Breach
2 Anger of the Gods
1 Jace, Wielder of Mysteries
1 Lost Legacy
2 Natural State
2 Supreme Verdict
1 Thought Distortion
1 Tome Scour
1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
2 Unravel the Aether
Lotus Breach by William 'Huey' Jensen, 2nd place at PT Phoenix 2020

By the time this article goes live, it is very likely that both of these decks will have been covered exhaustively, as well as the obvious answers to it (e.g. Damping Sphere, Rest in Peace). So instead, what I am thinking of looking into is the cards that can easily be overlooked in the format as it stands right now, from sideboard options to new techs and builds that have a solid chance of becoming fixtures until there is an announcement of an upcoming B&R announcement...

Metagame answers as of PT Phoenix

The particularity of the Americas RPT that took place in Arizona this past weekend is that it happened a full week after the Europe and Asia RPT's. As such, the dramatic changes to Pioneer brought by Theros Beyond Death had already been in full display, as it is not that much of an exaggeration to say that Thassa's Oracle and Underworld Breach really shook the format out of its midrange lull.

On Day 1 of the tournament, the metagame was shaped as per the graphic below:

Day 1 metagame of PT Phoenix 2020 (from WotC's coverage website)

As can be expected, competitors came prepared and chose the following tools for the sideboarding options:

  • Infinite Obliteration: this is obviously an answer to Thassa's Oracle as a win condition for both Dimir Inverter and Lotus Breach. The more "traditional" options had been Unmoored Ego or Lost Legacy, however these have the downside of letting your opponent draw cards if any copies are removed from their hand; Infinite Obliteration is slightly better in that sense, at the cost of being limited to chasing creature cards only. Outisde of targeting the Oracle, it can also be used on Inverter of Truth (a 6/6 flyer is still a significant threat on its own) and Fae of Wishes // Granted to prevent Lotus Breach to reach its sideboard. It is also efficient in the 5 Color Niv and Mono-White Heliod matchups, removing the namesake cards out of the game.
  • Thought Distortion: this card has been a mainstay in Lotus Breach's sideboard since the early iterations of the deck in its Lotus Storm form, and is a real beating to opponents on Azorius Control (and to some extent Dimir Inverter) who very often will see their hand wiped out. Interestingly enough, Thought Distortion exiles cards from both hand and graveyard, which means that even a timely Dig Through Time might not help recover that fast.
  • Gideon of the Trials: more than just a sideboard plan, the Amonkhet version of Gideon has started seeing play in the maindeck of Azorius Control and Mono-White builds alike. The reason players have turned to this planeswalker for answers is his Emblem, which can come as early as turn 3 and forces the opponent to have some form of interaction. Being able to turn into an indestructible 4/4 is nothing to sneeze at either, and works well with the other versions of Gideon legal in Pioneer (Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Gideon Blackblade).
  • Pack Rat: now that is a blast from the past! Part of Dimir Inverter's backup plan at RPT Phoenix was to try and win the aggro way by swarming the board - and this happened a couple of times during feature matches. Just like Gideon of the Trials, it forces an answer from the opponent - and if Lotus Breach cannot find Fae of Wishes // Granted to fetch Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Supreme Verdict, the game can be over rather rapidly. It is no surprise that Corey Burkhart had included 3 copies in his RPT winning sideboard.

Answers that should see more play

  • Ipnu Rivulet: this one is not as intuitive, but can be a very real answer to the Inverter/Oracle combo if timed right. Once Inverter of Truth has done its deed, if there are four cards or less in that player's "new" library and with no Jace, Wielder of Mysteries in play, you can mill these last few cards before the draw step to force a loss on your opponent. Of course, that's a lot of conditions to be met, but some builds of Dimir Inverter have already adopted Ipnu Rivulet as a mirror breaker. And then there is that clever tidbit from Pascal Maynard: this desert can also act as a Ritual effect for Underworld Breach combos, filling the graveyard with five additional cards if/when one runs out of things to exile when going off on a critical turn. It is of course not a Plan A option, but a nice alternative resource nonetheless.
  • Agonizing Remorse: Pioneer so far is a format where discard effects shine as one of the most efficient control piece. In addition to Thoughtseize, Thought Erasure is often tacked on to complement the discard suite, but Agonizing Remorse is another addition from Theros Beyond Death that is definitely worth a look. The fact that it exiles is significant when there are so many graveyard interactions at play; it can also act as a powerful follow-up to a turn 1 Thoughtseize to either completely remove what was already discarded or pick up another threat from the opponent's hand. Agonizing Remorse has started to see play out of the sideboard of some Mono-Black builds, and there is a solid chance it also makes its way to higher tiered deck in the near future.
  • Alpine Moon: this target answer to Lotus Field is a little out there, but in some cases could work better than Damping Sphere. For one, it is a solid answer in the Lotus Breach mirror since only the opponent is affected: we had the case during the RPT Phoenix Top 8 when Austin Bursavich played Damping Sphere only to have Huey Jensen cast Unravel the Aether on it which Bursavich tried to Absorb... only to realize he needed one extra mana due to his own Sphere. Second, even though Mono-Red is aggressive and fast enough to not resort to that level of trickery, it could still slow down Breach decks enough to let these extra points of damage through.

New twists and strategies

Between the Players Tour and the Grand Prix, MagicFest Phoenix featured both new archetypes and updated takes on existing ones. StarCityGames was also running an Open and a Classic in Pioneer (the Open was a Team event though). Let us have a look first at the winner of GP Phoenix:

4 Bonecrusher Giant
3 Eldrazi Obligator
3 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Rampaging Ferocidon
4 Soul-Scar Mage
4 Torbran, Thane of Red Fell
1 Zurgo Bellstriker
4 Lightning Strike
1 Satyr's Cunning
4 Wild Slash
4 Battlefield Forge
12 Mountain
4 Mutavault
4 Ramunap Ruins

2 Chandra's Defeat
4 Damping Sphere
2 Fry
2 Mizzium Mortars
4 Thought-Knot Seer
1 Tormod's Crypt
Mono-Red Eldrazi by Ben Weitz, Winner of GP Phoenix 2020

In a previous article I had mentioned how Chonky Red had taken over as the Mono-Red version of choice, but things have obviously changed and now speed is more of a factor. There are two cards that jump out from this build: Rampaging Ferocidon and Eldrazi Obligator. The former feels like it is aimed at preventing the Heliod/Ballista combo from going off (as well as limiting the chances of recovery if the game drags a little), while the latter is an intriguing strategic choice. On its face, 3/1 Haste for 3 CMC is average but still fits the aggressive motto of the deck; where it gets interesting however is that Eldrazi Obligator allows stealing an Inverter of Truth or an Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath for a huge swing. Obligator is the only reason to run Battlefield Forge in addition to Mutavault since it provides four more sources of colorless mana, required for Obligator's triggered ability. And since there is access to colorless, why not run four copies of Thought-Knot Seer out of the sideboard?

The surprise deck of RPT Phoenix is arguably this Orzhov Midrange build:

2 Gideon of the Trials
3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
1 Archangel Avacyn
2 Glory-Bound Initiate
4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
1 Kunoros, Hound of Athreos
2 Scrapheap Scrounger
1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
4 Thraben Inspector
4 Thoughtseize
1 Anguished Unmaking
4 Fatal Push
3 Heart of Kiran
4 History of Benalia
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Concealed Courtyard
4 Godless Shrine
2 Isolated Chapel
4 Mutavault
4 Plains
1 Swamp
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

1 Kunoros, Hound of Athreos
2 Agonizing Remorse
1 Arguel's Blood Fast
1 Cast Down
2 Devout Decree
1 Doom Blade
1 Duress
1 Elspeth Conquers Death
2 Glare of Heresy
2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
1 Kaya, Orzhov Usurper
Orzhov Midrange by Raja Sulaiman, 8-2 in Constructed Pioneer at PT Phoenix 2020

There is a lot to digest here, but also a lot to love! Both Gideon of the Trials and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar are in the main (see discussion above), some early and efficient threats in Knight of the Ebon Legion, Scrapheap Scrounger and History of Benalia, complemented by the traditional control package of Thoughtseize/Fatal Push with a sprinkle of Anguished Unmaking. I am a big fan of the singleton Archangel Avacyn as a nice anti-sweepers surprise, too. The one thing I would try to find room for is a couple of copies of Gideon Blackblade to give Vigilance to Glory-Bound Initiate and maximize its Exalted ability.

Finally, one more list I would like to mention out of this busy Pioneer weekend is a Jeskai Fires/Superfriends build that placed 8th in the SCG Classic:

3 Fae of Wishes
2 Nimble Obstructionist
1 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
3 Gideon of the Trials
2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
1 Nahiri, the Harbinger
3 Narset, Parter of Veils
2 Sarkhan the Masterless
4 Teferi, Time Raveler
1 Island
1 Plains
1 Castle Vantress
2 Clifftop Retreat
2 Glacial Fortress
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Interplanar Beacon
3 Sacred Foundry
2 Steam Vents
1 Sulfur Falls
1 Temple of Enlightenment
2 Temple of Epiphany
2 Temple of Triumph
1 Geier Reach Sanitarium
2 Detention Sphere
4 Fires of Invention
3 Anger of the Gods
3 Supreme Verdict

2 Damping Sphere
1 Possibility Storm
3 Rest in Peace
3 Mystical Dispute
1 Chandra, Awakened Inferno
1 Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God
1 Casualties of War
1 Merciless Eviction
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Unmoored Ego
Jeskai Fires by Tim Turner, 8th place at SCG Classic Philadelphia 2020

There was a version of Jeskai Superfriends in pre-Eldraine Standard that was very competitive, and Pioneer opens the door to an even larger pool of possibilities. And the choices are quite compelling, with Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Nahiri, the Harbinger, Gideon of the Trials and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as the new Friends to join the fray. Fae of Wishes // Granted is both a solid early blocker and a wishboard option, and there are enough sweepers to go around with three copies each of Anger ofthe Gods and Supreme Verdict. The "galaxy brain" item on this list is definitely Nimble Obstructionist which Cycling effect can counter any triggered ability - like, say, that of Thassa's Oracle maybe?

Wrapping up

The post-RPT's metagame is pretty much set, with three archetypes running away from the field: Dimir Inverter, Lotus Breach and Sultai Delirium. Behind those, Spirits, Mono-Red and Mono-White lists are being tuned to reach the top. Still, many are starting to raise their voice in favor of some B&R adjustments - which is understandable if one compares Dimir Inverter to Splinter Twin and Lotus Breach to Storm, two strategies that R&D mentioned as not being willing to see flourish again.

The format is still open enough to allow new and diverse strategies to perform, like the Sram Auras list that came in second place at RT Nagoya (but did so-so in Phoenix). What remains to be seen is whether these instances will be too few and far between; and with WotC's decision to not share as much data as they used to, this will be a little harder to figure out. But rest assured I will still be tracking all relevant data and share my findings with you all!

Thanks for reading, and feel free to reach out on Twitter @poppu_mtg for comments/questions.